The usually airy dining room is packed with hordes of people, all dressed in their finest suits and gowns. It’s T-minus two hours until the 2018 James Beard Awards and Chicago’s Proxi is one of the elite restaurants hosting an official “pre-party”.
The open kitchen pass is lined with hundreds of compostable plates carrying various Proxi creations—a medley of fresh ingredients handled with global flavors. Behind the pass stands a tall, thin man with silver hair and a young, pleasant face. His hands are constantly in motion and, yet, he looks composed amongst all the bustle around him.
Executive Chef Andrew Zimmerman—Multiple Michelin star recipient. Award-winner. 2012 Humanitarian of the Year, according to Plate Magazine. The list goes on.
I gather the billowing skirt of my Rent the Runway gown and make my way toward the food. Chef is deftly filling paper thin, hollow, deep-fried crepes shaped like bowls no bigger than the size of one’s forefinger and thumb pressed together.
“Pani puri?” I murmur in surprise.
It’s not every day that I find this staple street food from India—filled with mashed potatoes, tamarind chutney, chaat masala, boiled grams, and spiced water—south of Devon avenue in Chicago.
Chef Zimmerman looks up and pops a just-assembled puri on my plate. I study it warily for a few seconds and then fit it neatly in my mouth. Puri and pani explode in a burst of flavor, making me forget that I normally don’t even like pani puri.
“Wow,” I sputter and swallow. “That’s amazing. That tastes just like India!”
The crowds jostle me away but the memory of that pani puri lingers long after the night has ended.
Chef Andrew Zimmerman on cooking Indian food in Chicago and his unique form of inspiration.
Four months later, the day before my wedding, I finally get the chance to sit down with Chef Zimmerman. The conversation begins with the pani puri. Turns out, he’s no stranger to serving it at events.
“I actually did 800 pani puri for Chicago Gourmet,” he recalls. “I was first approached to do 400 but at some point, along the line, without discussion, it was upped to 800.”
I dive right in with, “How did you get into cooking Indian food?”
His answer weaves a tale of growing up in Edison, New Jersey, with his parents and younger brother. “I was really lucky growing up to have a father with a very adventurous palate. An eclectic palate. He used to take me to sushi and Indian food when I was little. I was super into spicy food and food with really big flavors.”
Zimmerman began cooking around the age of 15 out of boredom.
“My brother had the ten-year’s younger problem of only wanting to eat the same four things. I got really sick of those four things so I started making my own food.”
His adventures in the kitchen began with Paul Prudhomme’s Louisiana Kitchen.
“That led me to getting a book on Indian food,” he chuckles. “Apparently, that spiraled out of control.”
The cookbook was Julie Sahni’s critically acclaimed Classic Indian Cooking. Published in 1980, the book was touted as one of the “Six Most Important All-time Cookbooks for the Kitchen” by none other than the New York Times.
“It was good at the time because the book was targeted towards Americans,” Zimmerman explains. “There weren’t too many hard to find ingredients, which made it easier to keep going. It’s a fairly straightforward cookbook.”
“When did you first travel to India?” I ask.
“I’ve never been!”
I’m thunderstruck. Sure, I had only tasted one of his Indian dishes but it spoke with such authority that I assume he had experience with the real deal.
“It’s on my grand plan,” he continues. “I was always too broke for a long time when I was young. As I got older, I started to have more responsibility. I just didn’t have the right time off.”
So, Zimmerman traveled much like Matilda—vicariously through books.
“Part of the allure of these flavors was that I knew I wouldn’t be able to travel any time soon. I read through cookbooks but then also read about the different parts of each country and how food is approached. It’s a weak substitute, I grant you. But it was what I could do at the time.”
Accompanying his love for India and its cuisine, Chef Zimmerman set out to learn as much as he could about Thai and Vietnamese food as well. He spent some time in Bangkok and even did a guest chef stint in Tokyo. His travels, vicarious and real, have made a strong impact on his approach to cuisine.
“I’m not interested in doing something fusion-y,” he explains. “Each dish that inspires me stays pretty truthful to its origin. They don’t get muddied up by things that don’t belong together or by me getting too creative with them. It’s just the way I think of them.”
While diners won’t find much by way of Asian or Mexican recipes at Zimmerman’s Michelin-starred restaurant Sepia, Proxi was always meant to be a direct expression of travel.
“I want to draw attention to the very different kinds of foods,” Zimmerman says. “It gives me the opportunity to learn more from communities, which is exactly why I started cooking like this in the first place.”
While Zimmerman has no intentions of opening an Indian restaurant, he is doing his part in embracing and celebrating Indian ingredients. “I buy so much that I’m on the ‘allowed to take the shopping cart out to the car’ basis with the Patel Brothers now. This is a big breakthrough!” He laughs.
The menu at Proxi, Chicago, is all about blurring boundaries with global flavors and fresh ingredients
With Zimmerman’s enthusiasm for exploring regional Indian cuisine, Proxi’s menu has seen the introduction of dishes like uttapum, dhokla, ras vada, rogan josh, and mango kulfi.
“Thai and Vietnamese stuff tends to sell better,” he declares. “But it’s also a little more prominent on the menu.”
Zimmerman treats each new dish as a “litmus test”, to see how curious his audience is about these dishes. But it’s also a way for him to build credibility.
“I get a lot of people who come and look at the menu, and then they look over at me and go, ‘Hmm,’” he says, referencing guests who have lived in or grown up in places like Thailand and India. But then these same people—like me—often give his dishes a vote of authenticity.
I wonder aloud whether one can make an argument about Zimmerman’s cooking and cultural appropriation. He is not dismissive of this thought.
“I’m conflicted on that because I can see the premise and the argument but also…take Led Zepplin for example. Here’s a band that, for one thing, really did blatantly take music from artists. You could make a pretty strong case for them being cultural appropriators. But, you can also make an argument that they were part of a new British blues tradition that fell in love with a certain style of music, revered it, and wanted to be a part of it.”
In the past, white chefs have been hailed as artists or exploratory when introducing Mexican, Indian, Chinese, and Thai influences into their menus while chefs of those backgrounds often find their food cheapened or “ghettoized”. There’s a fine line between using these techniques and ingredients with no respect for where they came from and using them to help promote the culture and traditions they stand for.
While I remain an advocate for acknowledging the innate culture and politics that the restaurant industry represents and supporting chefs who are cooking the food of their people, I am also an ally for those who discover a cuisine and do their best to explore and honor it. This “blurring of boundaries” has made the fabric of food in America what it is today.
“A lot of what we do is my personal idea of American food because it’s the American food that I grew up with,” Zimmerman states. “I live in a country that allows me access to versions of all these cuisines that I was able to explore and learn something about. As a participant of food in America, these are the things that I like.”
Now, more than ever, coming together in celebration and respect of “the other” is crucial. What better way to do so than through food?
In celebration of inclusivity and the sharing of cultures through food, Un-Plated is hosting an exclusive collaboration between Proxi’s Chef Andrew Zimmerman and Tandoor Char House’s Chef Faraz Sardharia. Learn more about the event and purchase tickets here.